OILING the wheels of commerce to drive a green agenda sounds like a win-win situation, but critics of Dublin's "bicycles for billboards" deal say the council has ended up a loser.
J C Decaux, one of the world's leading outdoor advertising agencies, has given the capital significantly fewer bikes proportionally than it gave to Paris, Lyons and other European cities where it has billboard agreements.
Dublin has agreed to let J C Decaux erect 120 billboards on public footpaths around the city. In return the agency will provide 500 bicycles for low rent at 25 locations. It will also supply four kiosks with public lavatories, maps and signposts. The value to Dublin is calculated at €85m. The agency has also agreed to withdraw 100 of its existing hoardings from the city. New ones will be located on public property and some will carry civic information.
In Paris the company is providing 20,600 bikes this year in return for 1,628 billboards – more than 12.6 bikes for each billboard, three times the Dublin figure of little more four per hoarding. The Paris contract also involves paying an annual rental of €2,085 for each site for 10 years.
Several other European cities have similar deals with J C Decaux. Vienna was the first, in 2002. It was initially a disaster, with 2,000 bicycles stolen in the first 48 hours, but then 900 secure GPS-traceable bikes being provided. Each bike in Dublin will have a mini-chip to allow it to be tracked.
In Lyons, a city with a population similar to Dublin, 3,000 bicycles have been made available – six times more than here – while Barcelona also has 3,000. In Brussels, only 250 bicycles are available, but the J C Decaux advertising element is restricted to bike sheds. The city has paid €178,000 towards the scheme.
Dublin officials are refusing to release the contract on grounds of "commercial sensitivity", so the value of any cash transaction is included in the 15-year deal is not clear.
Andrew Montague, a Labour councillor who supports the project, said more transparency would be preferable. He believes J C Decaux got the contract after "a fair tender process", in which there had been six bids. "As the Paris
scheme is a much bigger scale, it was logical that they would get better value", Montague said.
The Paris terms were agreed after a court challenge by a competitor, Clear Channel, which claimed there were irregularities in the original tendering process.
Emer Costelloe, another Labour councillor, said the revelations about the Paris project confirmed her "worst fears" that Dublin was getting "an incredibly poor deal".
She would be urging the incoming Lord Mayor to address this "as a priority".
Dublin is permitting 70 "metropole" billboards, which are 3.5 metres high, automated and illuminated. A further 50 electronic billboards, similar in size to that of bus-shelter adverts, are to be installed in the city centre, primarily in the north inner city and along the Aungier Street axis.
The Dublin deal has attracted criticism over the lack of an environmental impact assessment and road safety issues. Forty appeals against planning permission have been lodged with An Bord Pleanala. They include objections filed by businesses such as Arnotts and An Taisce, the national trust, which say they were not consulted.
One complaint is that J C Decaux has engaged in project splitting by sending in 130 separate applications to the council. Critics say officials were already predisposed to granting planning permission.
Most of the billboards are to be erected on the north side and in the inner city, which critics say will lead "to further stigmatising already disadvantaged neighbourhoods".
Stuart Fogarty, former President of The Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland, has lodged an appeal on the basis that "the agreed advertising sites will be both obtrusive and create negative aesthetics for the city…and are not helpful to either motorists or pedestrians".
The Sunday Times understands that J C Decaux is already at an advanced stage of negotiation with Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown Council to introduce a similar scheme.
Ruadhan Mac Eoin
© The Sunday Times